Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Preach peace in Holy Week

Preach peace in Holy Week

NOW BEGINS the most sacred week of the Christian year — and the most dangerous. In Holy Week down through the centuries, mobs have poured out of churches in search of Jews to harass and kill. (In 1096, beginning on Good Friday, Christians killed something like 10,000 Rhineland Jews in a few short weeks — Europe’s first pogrom). And why? The Passion narratives that Christians hear proclaimed from pulpits between now and Friday explicitly blame the murder of Jesus on “the Jews.’’ Mobs were avenging the death of the Lord.

In recent decades, Christians have begun to dismantle this lethal legacy — most dramatically by the Catholic Church’s formal renunciation of the “Christ killer’’ slander at the Second Vatican Council in 1965. But the troubling texts remain. “Let his blood be upon us and on our children,’’ the Jewish crowd is reported by St. Matthew (27:25) to have cried at the reluctant Pontius Pilate, forcing the Romans to crucify Jesus.

Each of the four Gospels cast “the Jews’’ in the role of villain, and Christians will hear that story repeated verbatim this week. The vast majority will believe they are hearing a report of what actually happened. The most open-minded of them will adopt an attitude of forgiveness toward the Jewish people (“Father, forgive them. . .’’), but that compounds the problem.

Although based on events that actually occurred (the Romans crucified Jesus), the Gospels are not works of history. They were not written by eyewitnesses. They have a polemical intent that does not originate with Jesus.

Despite the fact that, over the past century, mainstream scripture scholars have unanimously concluded that the biblical accounts of Jesus’ passion and death are widely at variance with what actually occurred (far from the man of delicate conscience portrayed in the texts, Pilate was a brutal dictator who would have thought nothing of ordering the death of a Jewish troublemaker like Jesus), very few Christian lay people know that. Few preachers ever confront the Passion story as a slander against the Jews.

Such a confrontation would begin with the questions, Who wrote the Gospels? When? And in what context? A brief review of the chronology might help. Jesus was murdered in about the year 30. In subsequent years, those who loved him kept his memory alive (especially over meals of bread and wine) by relating stories about him, retelling his parables, recounting his sayings, understanding him in terms of their scriptures (which, of course, were Jewish scriptures, since they were all Jews). An oral tradition about Jesus developed. The Christian movement was still essentially a Jewish sect.

But then, in the year 70, a catastrophic trauma occurred. The Romans savagely destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem, generating a religious crisis of identity for all Jews — including the Christian Jews: What is it to be a Jew without the Temple? One group of Jews answered that now observance of the Law and study of Torah is key — the start of Rabbinic Judaism. The other group answered that now, Jesus is the New Temple — the start of the church. The two groups, in effect, were arguing over what it is to be a Jew. And that argument is reflected in the texts that only then began to be written down — the Gospels.

The earliest Gospel is Mark, and it dates to about 70. The latest is John, dating to about 100. In those three decades, the argument between Jesus-believing Jews (and their Gentile associates) and Jews who rejected claims for Jesus is reflected in the way the Gospels demonize “the Jews.’’

The point is that this polemic was written by people who were themselves Jewish, and for them the loaded phrase “the Jews’’ actually meant “those Jews who reject our understanding of Jesus.’’ When they define the Jews as the enemy of Jesus, they are writing about their own experience two generations after Jesus.

This week, Christian preachers must preach against these texts. Christians must hear these texts as if they are themselves Jewish, having foremost in mind that Jesus never stopped being a faithful Jew. If Christians had remembered that, and measured both their doctrines and their behavior against their Lord’s undying love of his own people, the history of the last 2,000 years would be very different....